September 3, 2023

Sermon – The Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew



The Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew

By V. Rev. Timothy Baclig

September 3, 2023

The full context of today’s Gospel lesson is in a section of St. Matthew’s gospel (of chapter 21), and is the third in a sequence of parables taught by our Lord  prior to this final entrance into Jerusalem, when He confronted the religious leaders concerning their hypocrisy and their false guidance in misleading the people.  He compares them to a fruitless fig tree.  He then illustrates their unfruitfulness in the Parable of the Two Sons.  They, like the son in the parable, who promised to work in his father’s vineyard, failed to do their Father’s will.  Finally, Jesus tells them the Parable of the Tenants, bringing His indictment of them to a climax, in order that they might realize their great distortion of God’s plan.  And in the words of St. John Chrysostom: “that [the Lord] might show their judgment to be greater and highly unpardonable” (Matthew; Homily 68).  Any Jew in Jesus’ day would’ve clearly understood what He meant.

The parable begins: There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it and dug a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.  God had chosen the Hebrew people and made a covenant with them.  He cared for them, provided for them, and gave them victory over their enemies.  In the parable the nation was God’s vineyard, and in it everything necessary was given them; they had land; its boundaries were set; laws and institutions were divinely provided.  According to St. Ambrose: these details are to be understood as symbols: the hedge is the shield of divine power; the winepress is the scene of spiritual effort to bring about the fruit of good works; the tower is the beacon or shelter of the Law, designed to guide them to righteousness (Treatise on the Gospel of Luke; Book 9, 24).

Kings and priests were the stewards (managers) of God’s vineyards and their responsibility was the lead the people to spiritual fruitfulness and fidelity to their covenant and fidelity to their covenant with God.  They owed Him loyalty and obedience.  The householder’s (landlord’s) departure for another country signifies: first, God’s trust in them, and second, His patience with their failures.  He gave them adequate time to develop what He had entrusted to them, even when they had failed over and over again.  But they still had time to return to obeying Him and to show fruits of godliness.

(verse 34) So…when the season of fruit (time of harvest) drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again he sent other servants more than the first: and they did the same to them.

The Book of Kings (divided into two books in the Protestant Bible) is divided into four books of the “Four Kingdoms” of the Old Covenant period.  It contains many accounts of the persecution and the murder of the prophets (I Kings 18:4; 19:10; 22:24-27).  God had sent his prophets to proclaim His will to the Hebrews, to call them back from their sinfulness and their idolatry, and to exhort them to keep their covenant with Him, an agreement that they had frequently broken.  

In the parable: the landowner repeatedly sends servants to his vineyard and they are killed.  It is a reminder of the shameful events in the history of God’s people as recorded in the Old Testament.  Any Jew hearing our Lord’s parable in the first century would have known what the Lord was making reference to.  

Finally, in the parable we hear the landowner sends his own son and says, “They will respect my son.”  And here the lesson goes much further.  It was obvious to everyone who heard the parable that Jesus was not only referring to Israel’s rejecting and slaying the prophets but also to Himself as the Son who had come to demand an accounting of the tenants, who were the chief priests and elders.  He was predicting His own slaying at the demand of the religious leaders of His day.  

We hear in verse 39 …And they took Him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  (The tenant’s casting the son out of the vineyard further reminds us that Christ was taken outside the city of Jerusalem to be crucified.)  

The image of a vineyard is frequently used in the Old Testament, and represents the people of God.  So great was the Lord’s care for His vineyard, the house of Israel, that He sent His own son to reclaim what was His.  His patience was still not exhausted, even though they had rejected His messengers – the prophets.  Perhaps the tenants thought that the Master would never come again to call them to account for mishandling his vineyard.  Maybe the kings and chief priests did not understand the message of the prophets.  In any case, they paid no attention to the message.  They had taken possession of God’s vineyard and behaved as if there was no Master to whom they must be accountable.    

But even before this parable was used by our Lord, the Holy Prophet Isaiah (8 c. BC) had foretold this very parable, in his reprimand of Israel for its perverse conduct in chapter five, verses four to seven:

      What more could have been done to my vineyard than have I

   done for it?  When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield

   only bad?  Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my

   vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I

   will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.  I will make it

   a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns

   will grow there.  I will command the clouds not to rain on it. For

   the vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel . . . And

   He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but

   heard cries of distress.

But was the lesson of the parable intended only for the Jews?  Certainly not!  The parable is a clear reminder to Christians that we have a covenant to keep: we are given a “sacred trust;” we are God’s stewards, His “tenants,” and that our disobedience and disloyalty will fall under the same condemnation.  Prophets no longer come to proclaim God’s will and to pass judgment on the people entrusted with the vineyard.  The last and greatest Prophet has come and revealed God and His will for mankind.  He is the Son of God, the true Heir, and we are the children of God: and if children, then heir, heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:16-17).

Paying attention to God’s warnings in our life is something that you and I can easily overlook.  It is not difficult for us to call upon God when we find ourselves in predicaments, or to earnestly pray for what we need or desire.  However, when God wants to get through to us – how readily are we willing to listen?  How frequently are we available?  How willing are we to make sacrifices or to change our course or direction?  Is having God there to serve our purposes really what matters to us?  Is there any thought to what God might expect of us?

In reflecting upon today’s parable I am reminded how that many of a persons frustrations can be the result of his or her own stubbornness and self-centered pride.  Being selfish can easily turn to a callousness that make ourselves accountable to no one, not even God.  It is easy to acknowledge that God knows what is best for us and to be thankful for His goodness.  However, it is not very difficult to isolate God from having much to say about what we would want for ourselves, our personal choices, forgetting that our Lord is the Landowner and we are His tenants; His stewards.

And for those of us who like to consider ourselves religious:  be careful!  Spiritual pride is also a sin and can get the best of us.  How often have you or I thought that we can handle bigger or heavier crosses?  Then there is the reality of how big or how heavy that cross is.  Sometimes it crushes us, but the wonderful thing is:  God is there to help us to learn and grow from our own ignorance.

Very shortly we will be commemorating the Feast of The Elevation of the Holy Cross.  It will be another reminder to us that God’s great love and abundant mercy is what sustains us.  Also, that our life, if it is to be a life of love, is never without commitments and self-sacrifices, personal choices and crosses.  


O Lord Jesus Christ our God, who is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets, and has called us to tend your vineyard, which you have established with your right hand, we Thy sinful servants ask for your guidance and help as we endeavor to be your good stewards as we labor to do your will.  Extend your hand from heaven and bless us all as we earnestly prepare for the Feast of your coming.  As we are ever mindful of your supreme sacrifice and are called to your service, grant us courage in obedience that we may truly be the inheritors and heirs of your Kingdom.  Keep us ever in your watchful care and protect us from the Evil One, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages.  A-men.